Unorthodox world champion James Lutz punches his way to victory

James Lutz shoots during the Hyundai World Archery Championships in 2019.

James Lutz revisits footage from his competitions often, not out of a sense of hubris – though he usually likes what he sees – but out of genuine curiosity.

The 21-year-old compound archer exists somewhat on the fringes of the archery community, having elected to take the unorthodox approach of training without any real support, a coach or help from a club.

“The only coach I’ve ever had is my dad, and he isn’t even that good of a shot,” he said. Lutz instead prefers to receive his instruction from World Archery’s YouTube channel and other sources of information online. 

It’s better this way, he says, although outside observers might be inclined to disagree. While the reigning World Archery Champion’s success is unquestioned, discerning viewers of the same videos Lutz watches to avoid discrepancies in his shot are just as likely to advocate against the mechanics that have made him one of the most unlikely success stories in recent memory.

“I can’t even imagine what a coach might have to say about what I do,” said Lutz, whose unconventional draw hand position and tendency to punch the trigger – consciously activating the release – contradicts every convention in the compound archery canon. “I’d compare it to if you were holding a baseball bat, except your hands are 3 inches apart. People might look at you funny, but if you hit bombs all day long, they can’t really say anything.”

Lutz left spectators speechless after his showing at the third stage of the Hyundai Archery World Cup in 2019.

He had barely travelled outside of the United States before snagging an invite to join the rest of the world championship team on the trip to Antalya, entering the competition as a virtual unknown to the rest of the international field.

His anonymity didn’t last long. Lutz advanced all the way to the compound men’s final, where he shot a perfect 150-point match to beat USA teammate and defending Hyundai Archery World Cup Champion Kris Schaff by a point. 

Two weeks later, he became the first compound man from the States to hold the individual world title in a decade, winning gold at the Hyundai World Archery Championships in ’s-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands.

The performance earned him the title of ‘rookie revelation’ – which is, like the cancelled international season in 2020, now firmly behind him.

Lutz is on everyone’s radar as he prepares for the first stage of the 2021 Hyundai Archery World Cup in Guatemala City. 

“It's kind of hard to put into words,” Lutz said of returning to competition after the pandemic. “I was shooting outdoors the other day at around 50 metres, and I was just struck, thinking, ‘man, this is where I belong’. It was just easy, you know?”

The seemingly effortless nature of Lutz’s poise in high-pressure situations has been one of the most notable aspects of his sudden ascent among archery's international elite. That calm exterior, he said, is the product of his relentless work ethic and an innate ability to understand the nuances of the sport, even if he approaches his craft differently.

If another archer were to punch the trigger as he does, Lutz explained, they would invariably get target panic within 20 arrows. The act of conscious execution is extremely challenging to control and often leads to difficulties in executing, an inability to aim or, as the Korean team calls it, ‘clicker disease’. 

Yet Lutz is able to thrive with this approach, suggesting a level of instinctual authority that exceeds that of even his more established peers. 

James Lutz won a stage of the Hyundai Archery World Cup and the Hyundai World Archery Championships in the span of one month.

“Archery is one of those sports where there’s a lot of things that can be taught, but there’s a lot of things that can’t,” he said. “Not many people can really understand what’s going on in my head when I’m shooting, and I think that definitely sets me apart from other people.”

The threat of target panic, however, will follow him for his entire career.

World number two Mike Schloesser cautioned that an approach like Lutz’s is vulnerable to erratic results, adding that young archers who experience success early are often due for a dip.

The current Hyundai World Cup Champion and also a world championship winner at a young age, Schloesser drew parallels between his own career and that of Lutz, saying that entering a tournament as the favourite far exceeds the innocence of competing as an unknown entity.

“Me being really familiar with the American scene, it’s rare to not know somebody like that,” recalled Schloesser, who lost to Lutz in a shoot-off during the quarterfinals of the world championships in 2019. “Not a lot of people can make [that style of shooting] work, but he’s one of them. He’s obviously doing something right.”

Lutz acknowledged that there isn't a particularly large sample size from which to assess his approach, seeing as he was forced to press pause on his sophomore international season. He spent most of the pandemic in a town of fewer than 500 people, in the wilds of Wisconsin, practising on a 20-yard range that sits below his apartment.

“Everybody in town knows everybody, everybody’s friends with everybody,” Lutz said. “It’s a good scene up here.”

It is not the kind of place where you’d usually find someone with extensive international travel under their belt. When his parents, who own a local pub, tell customers their son is a professional archer, they assume it is on the hunting side of the equation, obviously still very popular in the USA – and particularly in rural areas.

They find the idea of pursuing competitive target archery as a career a bit strange, Lutz said. In all honesty, he still kind of does, too.

“It really opens my eyes to things when people hear me say, you know, ‘I shoot archery for a living, I travel all over the United States and all over the world to shoot a bow’,” Lutz said. “People don't really get that up here. I’m really lucky I get to do that.”

The 2021 Hyundai Archery World Cup begins next week at the first stage in Guatemala City, followed by stops in Lausanne and Paris.

After a one-year hiatus, the opportunity for Lutz to cement his status as a professional archer and build on the world championship pedigree, earned at the age of just 21, is upon him. 

“I’m looking forward to the challenge,” he said, speculating on his rather unusual ambitions for the season. “I hope it’s a tornado out there at every event. I like aiming at the seven-ring to hit the yellow, you know? I love stuff like that. It’s my favourite part about archery.”